Researchers Tackle Mysterious Honeybee Disorder

13-Feb-2007 6:50 PM EST

University of Montana

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Newswise — Albert Einstein is supposed to have said, "If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years left to live."

Well, there's no need to get your affairs in order just yet, but a mysterious ailment called Colony Collapse Disorder is causing agricultural honeybees nationwide to abandon their hives and disappear.

It's a regular bee Bermuda Triangle, and a team of University of Montana honeybee researchers has been enlisted to find out what's bugging the bees -- the leading pollinator of humanity's crops.

"Individual beekeepers are really taking a beating," UM entomologist Jerry Bromenshenk said. "A guy down in Oklahoma lost 80 percent of his 13,000 colonies in the last month. In Florida, there are a whole lot of people facing 40, 60 and 80 percent losses. That's huge."

With CCD, most adult honeybees abandon a hive and disappear, leaving the queen and a remnant of younger bees. The malady also is characterized by uncapped brood -- when the cells of young bees in the pupa stage are not covered and protected by their older sisters -- probably because most of the adult bees have left. Dead adult bees aren't found near the hive; they are just gone.

"We don't want to panic the beekeeper industry because we are not sure it's time to push the panic button yet," Bromenshenk said. "But we do know this is real, it's severe and it's widespread."

CCD also is known as disappearing disease, dwindling disease and autumn collapse. Bromenshenk said similar outbreaks have been documented in beekeeping literature as far back as 1896, and the last major occurrence was likely in the 1960s.

"My belief is that what's going on right now has been seen before, but we've never really gotten a handle on it," he said.

At the bequest of concerned beekeepers, the UM research group has teamed with Penn State scientists to do chemical and genetic analysis of hives hit by CCD. Other partners include the Florida Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Our CCD group is trying to bring some fact-finding into play on this whole issue," Bromenshenk said. "We have some new technologies available now that weren't available in the '60s."

Bromenshenk also has spoken with beekeepers around the nation, as well representatives of the National Honey Board and the Almond Board of California. West Coast almond crops are completely dependent on healthy hives for pollination.

Bromenshenk said at least 22 states -- including Montana -- have been affected by CCD during the latest outbreak. Theories about what causes the malady range from a rouge protozoan that killed bees in Spain to new chemicals or a soil fungus. But no one knows for sure.

"This is just one man's opinion, but we suspect there might be something contagious or communicable," said Bromenshenk.

That could cause problems in California, where thousands of hives from across the nation congregate each winter to pollinate the Sunshine State's massive almond crop. Bromenshenk, who leads a UM technology spin-off company called Bee Alert Technology Inc., also worries beekeepers will combine the remnants of hives hit by CCD with healthy colonies, which might spread the malady further.

Bee Alert staff members have traveled to many of the hardest hit states to take samples. Field technician and self-professed bee lover Scott Debnam said the impacted bee yards are a little spooky to visit.

"Fortunately the sites I've visited have been recovering," he said, "but in Georgia I saw a lot of small colonies, a lot of uncapped brood and a lot of early-stage brood. The adults had flown the coop."

Bromenshenk said interest is growing in the CCD disorder. He is scheduled for an appearance on "The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric" this week.

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